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Franken details education views and defends net neutrality

REUTERS/Craig Lassig
Sen. Al Franken attending Minnesota Farmfest in Redwood Falls earlier this month.

Continuing my policy-position interviews with the major party nominees for U.S. Senate…

In his pitch to become a U.S. senator, Republican nominee Mike McFadden often brings up his service on the board of a Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a Catholic school in downtown Minneapolis that has achieved impressive results getting underprivileged students of color into college or into the military.

When I asked him how his Cristo Rey experience would inform his views on education as a U.S. senator, he said that some of the things that have worked at Cristo Rey — a private, parochial school — could not be scaled up to work with the large population of hard-to-educate kids attending urban schools in America, but that he would try to leverage federal aid to education, specifically by making it easier for innovative charter schools to get funds that now go to failing public schools.

I asked Al Franken about that. He said that he was open to experiments with charter-school funding, noting that charter schools are still part of the public schools. “I think there’s a place for charter schools,” he said. “What I don’t want to see are vouchers” that would enable families to take public-education money and use it to enroll in private schools.

But Franken was a lot more expansive on his general thoughts on education reform.

For starters, Franken favors putting more emphasis and funding in early childhood education. He said he was deeply influenced by the testimony of economist Art Rolnick (formerly of the Federal Reserve, now with the U of M’s Humphrey School). Rolnick argues — and Franken believes him — that each dollar spent on early childhood education saves the government from $7 to $16 later in the lives of the children who get that extra dollar of early investment.

People who have had a quality early childhood education are less likely to need special-education classes, less likely to be left back a grade, less likely to get pregnant before they get married and, on average have better health outcomes, get better jobs and are less likely to spend time in prison, Franken said.

(Of course, all of those outcomes either save the larger society money later — like money not spent incarcerating the person, not spent on high-cost special ed — or provide extra revenue to the government, like higher taxes by those with better jobs.)

Currently, Franken said, the United States ranks 26th among OECD nations (that’s the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in the portion of 4-year-olds participating in pre-school.

Franken said he is also interested in expanding ways to involve parents in their kids’ education.

As for George W. Bush’s signature-education law, called No Child Left Behind, Franken wisecracked “the only thing I liked was the name.”

He said NCLB put too much focus on testing, and especially big standardized tests that are used to rate schools and teachers. His beloved fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Moline (who appeared in an ad for Franken in his 2008 campaign) would give a quiz in the morning and have the results by afternoon and would know how to adjust her teaching plan to help kids get what they weren’t getting.

But the NCLB tests, he said, are like “autopsies,” because by the time the results come out, it’s too late to help the kids learn. Those tests also provide a perverse incentive for teachers to “race to the middle.” The teacher and the school will be judged on how many kids pass the test. To the degree that a teacher accepts the NCLB incentive to maximize the number of kids who pass the test, the teacher may focus his or her attention on kids in the middle of the pack who are most likely hovering just above or below the passing score and devote less attention to the highest performing kids, who will pass anyway, and the lowest-performing kids, who may fail no matter what the teacher does.

Net neutrality

The ground rules for this interview were that Franken would talk about his position on issues McFadden had already discussed, and then would have the option of raising one more issue. Franken chose net neutrality, the term for an Internet-regulation issue on which the Federal Communications Commission is considering making a change. Franken is strongly opposed to the change and wants to preserve the status quo.

The status quo, which Franken also refers to as “the open internet,” is basically this: Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to provide equal access to all content, regardless of the source, and all content “travels at the same speed,” Franken said.

In the past, the FCC has embraced this principle, Franken said, writing in 2010 that: “If broadband providers can profitably charge edge providers for prioritized access to end users, they will have an incentive to degrade or decrease the quality of the service to non-prioritized traffic.”

Under the leadership of  FCC Chair Tom Wheeler (an Obama appointee whom, Franken noted, used to be a lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries), the agency floated this idea of allowing “paid prioritization’ in which the purveyors of some content could pay ISP’s for the right to have their content move across the Internet in what Franken calls the “fast lane,” while less deep-pocketed content would move more slowly. Two of the three FCC commissioners have tentatively voted in favor of allowing this (which is called “paid prioritization”), but the rule change has been in a period of public comment before a final decision is made.

The breathtaking innovation that has characterized the early years of the Internet would be “stifled,” Franken said, if “large corporations are allowed to put their thumb on the scale” and have their content move in the fast lane.

As an example of how that might happen, Franken said that before YouTube, there was a similar but much less popular online video service owned by Google. A couple of guys developed YouTube over a pizzeria in California.

“Because of the open Internet, net neutrality, YouTube was allowed to travel at the same speed as Google Video and everyone preferred YouTube because it was better. And YouTube took over as the format people wanted to watch. And Google Video went away. And Google bought YouTube for $1.65B.”

But under the “paid prioritization” model, Franken implied, Google would have had the funds to pay for the fast lane, and the pizzeria guys would not, and customers would not have been as attracted to YouTube because they would have had to wait longer for the videos to load. The competition would have been unfair and the superior product would have languished.

Net neutrality, Franken said, is “the First Amendment issue of our time.” He also called it an “equality issue,” because of the advantages “paid prioritization” would bestow on those with deep pockets.

When the news leaked that the FCC was considering dropping the net neutrality principle, “there was instant blowback … from lots and lots of Americans, including me,” Franken said. “I wrote a letter saying that the idea of paid prioritization was antithetical to net neutrality.”

The FCC has received more than 1.1 million comments, the second most in its history. (If you must know, the most comments ever was over Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl nipple slip.)

There are some bills in the Senate that seek to influence this decision, and Franken is a co-sponsor on two of them. But he said it would be very hard to try to revise the communications laws, and even if he could get something to happen in the Senate, it’s unlikely the House would agree.

So his main emphasis has been to raise public awareness and pressure the FCC not to go forward with the new rule. “I am leading on this,” he said. “I have been very vocal.”

Which explains why, when he was offered a chance to bring up one more issue of his own choosing, he chose net neutrality. If I get an opportunity, I will gladly allow McFadden to express his views on the issue.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/28/2014 - 09:55 am.

    To Wipe Out Net Neutrality

    Would be to repeat the mistakes made as the PC market exploded,…

    mistakes which allowed Microsoft to put its fingers on the software market scale by bundling it’s operating system and other software onto nearly every non-Apple PC sold in the US.

    There were vastly superior software packages available: the Lotus “SmartSuite” Office Suite, for instance, which, if you can find it, still has vastly better capabilities and far fewer flaws than Microsoft office,…

    Microsoft Excel, for instance, still being unable to reliably tell the difference between a cell with no entry in it and a cell with the number zero in it when calculating averages, rendering the average function unreliable to say the least (something Lotus 123 has never had a problem doing),…

    (which leaves me to wonder how many corporations are working with unreliable and/or inaccurate numbers because their financial people don’t realize that flaw exists),…

    Microsoft’s database program, “Access,” still being nothing more than a glorified card file program with no more functionality than such programs had back in the days of DOS,

    while Lotus Approach has always allowed for sophisticated SQL data analysis within the program itself and the formatting, production, and printing of sophisticated reports.

    Lotus WordPro’s menus and interfaces following a far more logical placement of features so that searching for how to do something you’ve never done before is far more intuitive. In WordPro, things are generally where you would expect to find them.

    Microsoft Word, on the other hand leaves users constantly having to consult the help menus to discover where a particular, infrequently used, function is hidden in the opaque and confusing menu structures. In it’s most recent incarnations, even certain very frequently used functions are no longer available in the menus, but can only be accessed by using the control key with a letter – a complete throw back to DOS command line programs.

    So how did the inferior Microsoft Office (and Internet Explorer) come to dominate the market? Because they were already installed on most computers and office was constantly “updated” to be sure it didn’t play well with any other office suite. People used it because it was there.

    Publications reviewing each new version of Microsoft Office gave it a pass and ignored its glaring flaws because their publications were dependent on Microsoft’s advertising.

    Meanwhile being able to charge whatever they wanted for their software and having the market cornered, Microsoft got “soft,” and produced new versions of products designed more to pad their bottom line than to correct longstanding flaws.

    All of which is just to say that, as soon as we wipe out net neutrality and alter the internet to allow companies to operate in the same way Microsoft was allowed to operate in the early days of PCs, we will rapidly face the same issues: Innovative startups will never have a chance to be born because established companies will do everything in their power to be sure their own treatment is so preferential as to make competition by companies with new concepts and superior products impossible.

    We’ll be stuck with Google, Youtube, and Amazon as they currently exist because no one else will have a prayer of paying what it will cost to compete with them. Meanwhile we’ll all start having to pay (or pay more) for using Google, Youtube, and Amazon, to make up for their increased costs; money which will go directly into the pockets of the same people and companies for whom Mr. Wheeler used to work, and for whom he will work again once he resigns from the FCC, which he will very likely do as soon as he has accomplished this very definite and unjustified redistribution of wealth taken from the pockets of every household in the US and dumped into the pockets of the already fabulously wealthy.

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 08/30/2014 - 06:28 am.

      Sometimes the Monopoly Bullies Win?

      I think that’s what I take from your rather lengthy & detailed example:

      If Net Neutrality is not supported, then we are going to get bowled over by a tiny cabal of self-serving companies who don’t have the user’s interests foremost in their heart.

      We create a small handful of monopolies that dictate the internet. They would control the freeway on ramp lights.

      Thanks for that, excepting I think its too “inside baseball” for a lot of people.
      “Net Neutrality” is such an awkward phrase to begin with – that’s a problem in explaining what it means to lose it and how close we are to the internet being owned.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/28/2014 - 10:23 am.

    “The ground rules for this interview were….”

    Oh. We didn’t know you were letting subjects dictate the terms of your reporting, Eric. What were McFadden’s rules?

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 08/28/2014 - 10:37 am.

      Ground Rules

      Nowhere does it state that Senator Franken set the rules. Of course, reading all the way through to the end of the article (did you actually do that? If so, what are your thoughts on Net Neutrality?) does reveal that Eric offered him the opportunity to pick a topic of his choosing to expand upon. So it would seem that Eric Black set the rules.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/28/2014 - 12:07 pm.

      Reading comprehension?

      ….The ground rules for this interview were that Franken would talk about his position on issues McFadden had already discussed, and then would have the option of raising one more issue. Franken chose net neutrality….

      Sort of like a slo-mo debate….

      Ground rule–have both candidates talk mostly about the same issues….

      1 to 1…..

      For direct comparison…..

      Get it?

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/28/2014 - 04:38 pm.

    People who would prefer to consign Senator Franken to his former days as a writer of satiric comedy are frustrated when they come face to face with the depth of his knowledge on national issues that are, and will continue to expand as, important issues for the 21st century. Like net neutrality. He’s considered a Senate expert on it, folks, and there’s no way his Minnesota opponent can even hold a candle to that knowledge.

    It’s not just a Microsoft-ish, or software, problem. It’s the future of movies and television and all information sharing, that net neutrality deals with. Center Stage for the next phase of the internet.

    It’s sooooo nice to have a senator who can talk clearly and with competence about the complexities of what faces our society.

    Re-elect Franken!

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/29/2014 - 08:50 am.

    There’s no doubt

    That Franken is more intelligent and knowledgeable than McFadden. Franken has always been a policy wonk, and he’s always been a keen observer of government and society… that’s what made him a good comedic writer.

    Of course the question is always whether or not voters will elect the smarter more knowledgeable candidate? The record on that is mixed. I think Mcfadden is ultimately doomed for three reasons. First, Minnesotan’s had their experiment with electing dull bulbs starting with Ventura, and running right up through Bachmann. I think a majority of them voters have concluded that dull bulbs don’t produce much light. Second, Minnesotan’s like most of the nation seem to have realized trickle down small guvment economic plans paralyze governments, distribute wealth in the wrong direction, and create financial crises in both the public and private sectors. Finally, in addition to being smart and knowledgeable, Franken has proven to be an effective legislator and talented politician.

    McFadden on the other hand doesn’t appear to have a clue regarding government, education, or economics, and doesn’t seem to have realized that the republican base isn’t large enough to win state-wide elections in MN. He also doesn’t seem to have realized that the primaries are over and he won. His ads have no appeal beyond the ever decreasing base of republicans who hate Obama and are obsessed with repealing Obamacare. Personally I think it’s great if you want Franken to win. Every ad McFadden releases puts more distance between himself and MN voters. I love the fact that these guys think the “Walker” model will get them elected. I encourage them to double down and pursue that strategy with as much passion and money as they can possibly muster.

  5. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/30/2014 - 07:39 am.

    First Amendment Issue of Our Time

    Net neutrality seems like such a small issue. Ok, sure, I don’t want some companies to have an unfair advantage over others. I don’t want a wealthy company to be able to shut out new competitors. But let’s think about the various ways that companies do that.
    Does Franken oppose the various ways that big established companies capture the regulatory state to keep out the little guys? Is he trying to reform the copyright and patent statues that serve as a big stick against competition? How about the licensing schemes that make it hard to start new business? Is he working to knock down those barriers?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/30/2014 - 09:54 am.

      In the 21st century

      the Internet is a big issue.
      Because it is transnational in nature it doesn’t fit neatly under existing antimonopoly legislation. That’s why there’s a particular need for new legislation to address it.
      The other issues you raise are subject to existing case law, so it’s less a question of requiring new legislation than it is of enforcing existing legislation, which is the function of the executive and judicial branches more than it is the legislative branch of government.
      Of course, if you had a specific situation in mind and talked to one of Franken’s staffers about it, you might get some answers (more, I suspect, than from McFadden, which is the issue here).

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/30/2014 - 04:36 pm.

        Size of the Issue

        Paul, the issues I’m raising have less to do with ‘enforcing existing legislation’ and more to do with what is the correct balance of power. If Franken is concerned about the unfair legislative advantages of big companies, he could look at something bigger than net neutrality. I’m baffled that anyone would think of this as *the* first amendment challenge of our time.

      • Submitted by E Gamauf on 08/31/2014 - 09:18 am.


        Industry itself is going trans-national.
        They seem to be more important than entire countries now.

        When the Halliburtons have their own army…

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/02/2014 - 09:21 am.

      Copyright and Licensing

      As you point out, copyright and patent laws have their present anti-competitive flavor at the behest of corporate interests. Sometimes, capitalism creates very bad results, and does so for the basest of reasons. Of course, the anti-competitive intellectual property laws do have the value of “efficiency,” that oft-touted goal of free market types.

      Licensing laws are typically enacted at the state level, so Congress has little to do with them. Here is where local control and power has led to bad results (it isn’t the big government liberals in Washington who are licensing hair braiders and interior designers)

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/03/2014 - 08:56 am.

        Free Market Types

        RB, you may not know this, but ‘free market types’ have been arguing loudly against the corporate cronyism that has given our copyright and patent laws ‘their present anti-competitive flavor’. I’m curious if Franken will push back against this or not. A cynic might note that Franken’s ties to Hollywood favor the current regime. And um, if you can find a link to an argument from ‘free market types’ that support ‘anti-competitive intellectual property laws’, I’d love to read it.
        It’s certainly true that licensing laws are usually a state level problem. So no, it’s not the big government liberals in Washington that are the problem. It’s the big government libs in Minnesota (and other states). But if Franken and other libs really want to go after areas where big companies make it harder for smaller ones to compete, this would be a good place to talk about. This is an area where actual, existing problems can be solved.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/03/2014 - 09:46 am.

          Free market types

          The US Chamber has strong positions on intellectual property, and on strengthening protections for the holders of such property. I’m sure they would call themselves “free market types.”

          Again–professional or business licensing is not a federal concern. Any statement by Senator Franken on the issue would be meaningless.

          • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/04/2014 - 07:58 am.


            The Chamber of Commerce is a somewhat fickle friend of free market principles. That’s the main divide between them and the tea party side of the Republican party. And to be clear, I’m certainly not saying that all copyright and patents are a problem. Most of them are fine, but there are some abuses in the system that are causing problems. Software patents, especially. From what I understand (and I’m not an expert in this area), they cause much more problems for small, aspiring firms, than access issues like net neutrality. I don’t know that copyright issues fall into this same category, but the current rules are very clearly written only for the benefit of big movie studios and corporations. I’d like Franken, champion of the little guy, to fix some of the problems there.

  6. Submitted by John Appelen on 08/30/2014 - 09:30 am.


    I thought it was humorous that Sen Franken implied that somehow NCLB/AYP would force change into his Teachers methods.

    I mean if her students were learning the curriculum that has been deemed important by our society, there would be no reason for her to change.

    Of course, if an excessive number of students were being “Left Behind” in her classroom, then she would be pressured to improve her methods and/or effort to ensure the kids succeeded… And isn’t that what we want?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/30/2014 - 04:15 pm.

      As I read the quote

      Franken is talking basically about a behavioral economic analysis:
      Programs like NCLB/AYP set incentives for teachers to devote most of their efforts where it will have the greatest impact on the -average- score on a yearly test.
      This means emphasizing ‘the middle of the pack’ — the average students where a relatively small gain in performance will have a large effect on the class average. The losers will be the ends of the distribution: the very good students and the very poor students, where even a large gain will have little effect on the average.
      Raising a hundred students from a B-minus to a B will be rewarded more than raising five students from a D to a C. The problem is the small change is more likely to be just an improvement in test performance with little social significance, while the large change can have a real effect on the contributions that an individual can make to society.
      Of course, this goes a bit beyond a political sound bite analysis.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/30/2014 - 09:54 pm.


        Remember what the N stands for?

        I do agree that some of the “gifted” programs, efforts and spending may suffer a little. I mean the current system is biased towards offering a wide curriculum and placating the most vocal and influential stakeholders. Teachers like teaching those classes and the affluent well spoken parents are good at lobbying for them.

        Guess what that means? We end up with a HUGE achievement gap in reading, writing, math and science in MN because the system is rigged to leave those kids behind as the others are focused on in many ways. Leading to a bunch of unlucky kids that can not pass the minimum requirements.

        On top of this, union high seniority teachers get to pick their schools, so the kids that need the experienced teachers the most do not get them. Ironic, isn’t it…

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/31/2014 - 10:06 am.

        Remember Beths Article

  7. Submitted by Christopher Williams on 09/02/2014 - 09:19 am.

    Food for thought….

    Just to expand on the examples above. If we allow Net Neutrailty to go away, think of all the ways marketers would dream up to part us with our cash. Basically, it would be the cable subscription model all over again. What if your internet provider signed an exclusive partnership with Bing? Comcast search, sponsored by Bing! They could make it so you could only search using the Bing search engine in the basic internet packages. Want to use Google? Sorry, your internet package doesn’t cover that. Google is a premium site, and part of our “Elite” internet package. You must buy a better internet package to get that service.Can I help you upgrade your service today? Want to watch Netflix? Sorry – we don’t carry Netflix, but you can view Comcast video on demand as part of your “elite” internet package!

    This is why we need neutrality. ISPs should be like utilities connecting you to the net. Where you go and what you do should be none of their business. We need less corporate control of our data – not more!

    Think of it like this. It’s not a perfect analogy but its easy to wrap your head around…. You pay to have your house wired for electricity when it’s built. You pay monthly for whatever you use. Would we allow an electric company to examine how we used our electrons and charge us for it? Would we allow them to price things differently if we used our electricity to make toast? Do laundry? Of course not. We paid for a hookup and we paid for the amount we used. What we used it on is irrelevant.

    Same with water. We pay for a hookup and we pay for what we use. Should the water company examine our usage of the water and change the rate based on how we use it? Making ice cubes? Washing your car? Oh there’s an add-on fee for that. Taking a shower?, oh that’s a necessity so we’ll allow one shower a day before we charge you extra. The first 5 gallons a day are on us! Of course not. That would be nonsense. We paid for a hookup and we paid for the amount we used. What we used it on is irrelevant.

    Why is the internet any different? Charge us for a hookup, charge us for what we use, charge us to get the data at a certain speed, but don’t examine what we’re doing with our bits and bytes and figure out ways to “monetize” that usage. That’s just ridiculous.

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